Norman Chance
The Arctic Ocean is the centerpiece of the Circumpolar North. Lands bordering this region include those of Alaska, Canada, Greenland/Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Throughout this immense area, economic developers search for oil, gas, zinc, silver, coal, and similar marketable products. In Alaska, especially, a major problem restricting this development is land withdrawal - millions of acres having been set aside for national or regional parks, military reserves, forests, wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas.

The land and surrounding sea also play an important role in the defense strategy of arctic-rim countries. Protection of mineral resources, such as the Prudhoe Bay petroleum complex on Alaska's northern coast and the gas fields on Yamal Peninsula in northwest Siberia, are two examples. While the end of the Cold War has diminished military activities in the far north, American missile-carrying submarines still ply the same arctic waters as Russian missile-carrying submarines. Other military activities include modernizing radar and laser oriented detection facilities; assigning airbourne warning and control system aircraft to the area; maintaining ground forces to protect military and industrial installations -- and in the near future, the establishment of a U.S. National Missile Defense program with launch pads and storage bases in Alaska.

These economic and military endeavors have not gone unchallenged, however. Environmental organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council in the United States, Social Ecological Union in Russia, and the large international association, Greenpeace, all have national and regional offices with active lobbying staffs. Whether operating separately or in coordinated efforts with indigenous and other groups, these organizations regularly challenge governmental legislation, corporate or military appropriation, that is perceived as threatening the preservation of wildlife refuges and other environmental treasures. From their perspective, the future of arctic wildlands can be assured only if the forces advocating oil, gas, and other nonrenewable resource development in their regions of concern are soundly defeated.

...what action can indigenous peoples take to address problems of environmental degradation in their homelands?

As permanent residents of the Arctic and Subarctic, indigenous peoples have equally strong views on how the land should be utilized. While needing the economic advantages that stem from local mineral extraction, they nevertheless frequently fear the outcome. For example, what will happen when the large gas complex, presently being constructed on Siberia's Yamal Peninsula, destroys summer reindeer herding pastures of the thousands of Nenets who reside in the area? What will be the impact on indigenous families of the large numbers of gas pipeline workers and other Russian 'newcomers' who are moving into the region? Additionally, to what extent is Russia's industrial pollution, carried north by the Ob River, reducing Nenets commercial fishing enterprises along the edge of the Kara Sea? And finally, what action can the Nenets and other indigenous peoples living nearby take to address these problems?

In Alaska, similar questions are being raised by its Native peoples. What is the likelihood that projected off-shore oil drilling projects will result in a major oil catastrophe? Such an accident could easily bring about a change in the annual migration route of the bowhead whale, driving it further north away from Inupiat and other Eskimo groups living along the coasts of arctic seas. The loss of this animal to a sea mammal-oriented subsistence economy, would be highly significant, not only reducing an important source of nutritional sustenance, but threatening their cultural identity as well.

The 7,000 neighboring Gwich'in Athabascan Indians of northeast Alaska and northwest Canada see a similar danger from prospective oil exploration in an area where the Porcupine Caribou Herd, one of the largest in the world with over 165,000 animals, has its calving grounds on the tundra of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. As stockholders of Native corporations with land rights in the Refuge, most Inupiat want to benefit from the leasing of this potentially rich land to oil companies. But as subsistence hunters, some Inupiat and all the Gwichin are deeply apprehensive that possible oil development may disrupt the calving grounds of the caribou - resulting in a serious loss of a vital subsistence food. Concerns such as these can drive a deep wedge between those northern Natives who rely heavily on hunting and fishing for much of their daily sustenance, and those who look to oil-related wage employment as their most important means of economic livelihood.

Attempting to arbitrate conflicts between multinational energy corporations, environmentalists, indigenous peoples, and other interest groups are the various branches and agencies of the national, regional or state, and local governments. Yet here too, conflicting interests are the norm. Within the United States, for example, one agency within the government such as the Mineral Management Service of the Department of Interior, may encourage oil and gas development through their leasing and other services; while another, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, tries to protect the renewable resources within its jurisdiction. At the national level, the U.S. government is a major owner of potential petroleum-producing property in Alaska. However, its revenue needs are only minimally tied to these lands. Thus, its perspective on oil extraction is more likely to address national energy levels, international trade, and foreign policy issues.

The revenue base for the state of Alaska, on the other hand, is intimately related to oil. The Prudhoe Bay field, the largest single accumulation of oil ever discovered in North America, is located on lands owned by the state. In the fifteen years following that discovery in 1968, the proportion of the state budget utilizing petroleum revenues rose from an annual average of about 12 percent to more than 90 percent and it remains extremely high today. Still, whether the focus is political or economic, both the national and regional governments of all the circumpolar countries have important vested interests in developing their mineral resources and assisting those corporations extracting them -- for revenues and employment from such companies are central to their financial welfare.

The indigenous populations of the Arctic and Subarctic regions face new political challenges as well as economic, social, and environmental ones. Following the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay, the U.S. Congress was forced to address a long-standing conflict over the legal ownership of Alaska's land, a dispute that was at least partially concluded with the passage of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act [ANCSA]. In this legislation, Alaska Natives retained 44 million acres of land and nearly a billion dollars in compensation for the extinguishment of all aboriginal claims totaling 330 million acres. Significantly, the act also obligated the Native population to establish 12 in-state profit-making corporations and more than 200 village corporations to serve as vehicles for the ownership and management of the land and money which then became corporate assets. By enacting ANCSA in this manner, Congress strongly rejected the concept of tribal government where land could be held "in trust" by the U.S. Department of the Interior. In their view, collective tribal ownership was considered too much of an impedient to Native assimilation to receive serious consideration. Corporate structures would also encourage Alaska Natives to become more actively involved in the national economy.

After many travails, indigenous land claims in Canada have had several successes in recent years. One of the most significant was the agreement to establish a new constitutional and political structure in the Northwest Territories. After 20 years of concerted effort, the Canadian Inuit and the Canadian government agreed to create the Nunavut Territory that became legally recognized in 1999. Now, rather than coming to the federal government as an indigenous organization - one of many interest groups - the Inuit are able to approach Ottawa as a fellow government.

Greenland's Home Rule Act of 1979 provided that nation's Inuit population with a substantial base from which to build their own Greenlandic political and cultural identity. Today, Kalaallit is a nation within the nation of Denmark; a geopolitical entity in which the indigenous population assumes major leadership. The Sami, [Laplanders] who live in the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia have considerably less control over land and resources, although in Finland and Norway, the Sami have their own parliaments with limited power to decide on issues related to their language and culture. Continuing to practice a subsistence economy associated with reindeer husbandry, hunting and fishing, they nevertheless remain deprived of aboriginal rights to the land.

In the northern tier of Siberia and the Russian Far East, the 26 indigenous groups of that region have even less influence over their resources and cultural future - although, here too, political pressures are building for a more equitable resolution. Illustrative of this development was a conference held in late 1994 on 'Problems of the Indigenous Peoples of the [Russian] North.' Meeting at Komsomol'sk-na-Amure, the participants included representatives from eight indigenous groups, deputies of the Federal Duma and the Federal Assembly, leaders of several territorial governments, scientists and other specialists from Moscow, Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, and Dudinka.

...the sources of present human behavior must be understood in their historical context.

At the conference, members stressed that the lack of a legislative base for the revival and development of indigenous peoples of the Russian north is a major stumbling block in protecting the legal rights of Native groups in that country. In their summary remarks, the representatives committed themselves to promoting a set of laws that guarantee indigenous people's rights to ownership of traditionally used lands and their resources. Significantly, however, the political weight of these northern-oriented members in the large Federal Duma is weak. Nor do the indigenous groups have their own representative delegates. Thus, a long period of struggle is certain to occur before any resolution satisfactory to Russia's northern indigenous peoples can be expected.

In the discussions that follow, we will examine in different times and places, the varied interests of the diverse groups referred to in this Introduction. The emphasis on history reflects a belief that the sources of present human behavior must be understood in their historical context; whereas the comparative approach enables us to trace the intertwining of different societies holding different agendas. Combining the two immediately focuses our attention on the unfolding of connections - connections between ecological, economic, social, cultural, and political forces that have laid the basis for interaction between the people, land, and sea of the Circumpolar North for centuries. That, in essence, is the centerpiece of this particular Arctic Circle. The importance of such a holistic approach is imaginatively described in the following story by Edna Ahgeak MacLean, an Inupiaq woman from Barrow, Alaska:

One day an avingaq decided to venture outside his hole and assess the rest of the world. When he stood up on his hind legs, lo and behold, to his surprise, he was able to reach the heavens. When he reached down, he felt the ground. When he reached in all directions, he was able to touch the limits of the world. He concluded that he was the largest person on the face of the earth.

In reality, the poor mouse had surfaced from his hole in the ground into an old Inupiaq boot sole turned upside down. The top of his heaven was the sole of the atungak and the outer limits of his world were the sides of the atungak.

When I think of this story, I am mindful that I should consider all facets of a situation before I make any conclusions. I should not limit myself to what is around me, but I should explore and search for other information, lest I be like the poor mouse.

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